Poinsett's rebirth recalled its history

buildings downtown historic


GREENVILLE NEWS/File

The Poinsett hotel reopened in 2000 after $19 million in renovations. In front stands the 1916 courthouse.


Hotel Greenville, as it was first called, was a local project.

After the third Southern Textile Exposition in 1919, it was clear that the city needed a new hotel; there weren't enough rooms for all the visitors.

After the fourth, in 1921, the Exposition Board decided that unless one was built -- and soon -- they would have to cancel the next show, a source of community pride and prosperity.

So, they went to work. Greenville's cotton men immediately asked New York hotel architect W.L. Stoddard to draw plans and make a sketch. They formed the Community Hotel Association and began raising stock subscriptions among themselves. In October 1923 they were ready to launch a public drive.

The "founding fathers" were John T. Woodside of Woodside Mill; Walter S. Griffin, a cotton factor who had cornered the market in 1920, driving the price of cotton up to $.43 a bale and bringing millions of dollars to Southern farmers; Joe Sirrine, the architect and engineer who was building textile mills throughout the Piedmont; real estate developer William Goldsmith; publisher B.H. Peace; and mill presidents Robert Henry, B.A. Morgan, A.F. McKissick and D.L. Norris. All were members of the board of directors of the Textile Exposition.

The stockholders, the "best business minds and most public-spirited citizens" of the city, hired Hockenberry Systems Inc. of Philadelphia to raise $650,000 for construction.

By December the fund-raisers had pledges from 1,734 Greenvillians, and the monthly Civic and Commercial Journal announced that "Greenville's new million dollar hotel is assured!"

The new "Hotel Greenville" would be erected on the site of the century-old Mansion House on South Main Street. The board purchased the property for $225,000 and promptly demolished it.

The elegant new hotel would have 210 rooms, each with a private bath, and extensive conference and reception rooms. The 12-story building would cost $1.2 million; furnishings were budgeted at $250,000.

Stoddard, who also designed the less expensive and elaborate Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, drew full plans based on his earlier rendering; J.E. Sirrine & Co. were associate architects who oversaw construction by Hunkin and Conkey of Cleveland, Ohio.

The cornerstone was laid in May 1924; 13 months later the newly named Poinsett Hotel opened with fanfare and festivities.

Reporters for The Greenville News and Greenville Piedmont used adjectives lavishly to describe the "thing of wondrous beauty": "magnificent," "palatial," "dazzling" and "sumptuous."

The opening rated a full-page story headlined "Poinsett Stands a Towering Monument to Civic Pride of its Chief Owners and to the Glories of its Builders."

It opened on June 22 and 23, 1925. The first evening was a formal affair for the "board and their ladies"; the second, a "civic banquet" for stockholders held under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce.

The association hired the former manager of the DeSoto Hotel in Savannah to run it; the chef had a fully equipped bakery and seven assistants.

The elegant new hotel was just what Greenville needed. In 1925 more than $2 million was spent in downtown construction and mill expansion. True, there were rumors of economic slowdowns elsewhere, but Greenville was flourishing.

The flourish lasted for another year. The South led the way into the Great Depression, and the Poinsett lost $30,000 in 1926. It was leased to the Barringer Hotel Co., which went into receivership three years later.

By 1930, the hotel was $1.5 million in debt and couldn't cover mortgage payments. When Mason Alexander, who had been manager of the Ottaray Hotel at the top of Main Street, was hired to run it, "the sheriff was at the door."

Alexander turned it around. Charging $3 a day in the depth of the Depression, he restored the hotel's financial health and during the next 30 years turned it into one of the best hotels in the South.

The Poinsett's register became a "Who's Who" of American celebrities: John Barrymore, Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Dempsey, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Swanson, and, later, Robert Kennedy, stayed there.

Its fame for hospitality, service and good food spread. Alexander conducted "white glove" inspections, gave crisp new dollar bills and freshly washed change to customers; bellhops and maids memorized guests' names; doorman W.G. Williams greeted arriving tourists with a welcome finely attuned to the luxury of their automobiles. Spoonbread became the Poinsett's signature dish.

Northerners on their way to Florida stopped regularly. Conventions made it their headquarters. WFBC began broadcasting there in 1933. Debutante balls and fraternity dances were held in its Gold Ballroom.

Greenville's elite gathered for expensive ($1.25) Sunday dinners in its restaurant. Greenville Womans College President David Ramsay and his wife, Grace, came weekly after church services at First Baptist; the Poinsett orchestra serenaded them with "Amazing Grace."

It received the ultimate seal of approval when Duncan Hines included the dining room in his list of recommended restaurants.

In 1946 the Jack Tar hotel chain purchased the hotel; that year the Jack Tar Poinsett was named the best mid-sized hotel in America by a national association of hotel executives. Mason Alexander was in charge until his retirement in 1960.

By the 1970s, though, the hotel was showing its age. Philips Hungerford and the Poinsett Development Corp. purchased it in 1973, auctioned off its worn and dated furnishings and renovated it extensively. It was not enough.

Fire marshals warned that it did not meet modern codes. In 1975 it closed for the first time, a victim of age, neon-lit motels and the decline of Main Street.

North Carolina National Bank advertised in the Wall Street Journal that "one of the foremost names in the South" was available for quick sale for $475,000 in cash.

In 1977 it was purchased by Frank and Ann Bible, who reopened it as a residential hotel for senior citizens; daily room rates ranged from $12 to $18. They owned it until 1985, when they sold it to California developers for more than $3 million. The developers promised to restore its original appearance and meet fire-code regulations. They did not. They also defaulted on the mortgage.

In 1982 the hotel was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1987 the city fire department condemned the Poinsett, and it closed again. In the same year, LDR, one of the city's planning consultants, estimated that renovations might cost a million dollars and said that the time was not yet ripe -- although Main Street was recovering, construction had just begun on the Peace Center.

The Poinsett had been vacant for 13 years. Thanks to Steve Dopp, $19 million in renovations, and the constant support of city government, it reopened Oct. 20, 2000.

Judith Bainbridge